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  • Chinese Archives: An Introductory Guide
  • Nelson Chou (bio)
Ye Wa and Joseph W. Esherick. Chinese Archives: An Introductory Guide. China Research Monograph, no. 45. Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1996. viii, 355 pp. Paperback $23.50. ISBN 1-55729-047-4.

The Chinese people are acutely aware of the importance of keeping written records. Both the rulers and the ruled in China have always regarded history as a mirror of the future, and they have also known that keeping records of all kinds is the key to preserving the authenticity of history. In ancient China, almost all government agencies maintained an archival office within their individual establishments. However, on many occasions throughout China's long history, written records, including archives, have suffered destruction not only as the result of war or natural disaster but also, and primarily, for political reasons. This was especially true during periods when the rulership had just undergone change. The new rulers would almost always destroy records deemed damaging to the new regime. This political censorship has presented serious problems for keeping archival records complete and intact. Indeed, keeping these records complete in China has been a virtually impossible task for those entrusted with it. Ruling parties have frequently carried out literary inquisitions and manufactured forgeries to suit their own political purposes. This does not mean that one cannot find value in or make use of the available archival records; one just has to be careful how to read them.

As the compilers of Chinese Archives: An Introductory Guide point out, "Archival research offers the best opportunity for original findings" (p. 3). However, these findings should be verified against other written materials—genealogical records and personal memoirs, for example. In addition to the national archives, specialized archives, and the archives in Taiwan, this Guide also covers archives in twenty-five provinces, two self-governing regions, and three large municipalities. All local archives are entered under these major headings. Since there is no index at the end of the volume, the reader may find it difficult to locate a specific archive in the main text. Nevertheless, this is definitely an important reference tool, regardless of its deficiencies, some of which are discussed below.

Despite the wide regional coverage in the Guide, the actual number of archives included is only 17 percent of all existing Chinese archives (p. 30). This lack of completeness, as the compilers themselves acknowledge, is perhaps the major weakness. Of course, one has no quarrel with the compilers' claim that "a guide to even this small number is a significant advance over having no guide at all" (p. 30).

Another serious drawback is that the compilers obviously did not personally visit the individual archives listed. They have relied primarily on secondhand information [End Page 564] in assembling this work, and, as a result, there are shortcomings. The description of individual archives is unbalanced: the longest is twelve pages, while the shortest is just a couple of lines, and the compilers are not certain about either the public accessibility of many of the archives or what limitations may be placed on their use (p. 19). In a revised edition, it would be desirable to add an index at the end to facilitate the search for individual archives.

Other minor errors should also be corrected: In the Table of Contents, Heilongjiang is misspelled as "Heijongjiang." Xinfang ju on page 16, siyan sikuan on page 25, and chengjian dang'an on page 29 are not found in the glossary. On page 32, under Library Abbreviations, instead of Gest Oriental Library and East Asian Collections—the official title of the Princeton University Library—"East Asian Library" is erroneously given. And the title of the Library at UCLA is not "East Asian Collection" but the Richard C. Rudolph East Asian Library.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, the Guide has a well-written introduction, and it should be very helpful to researchers in China studies. [End Page 565]

Nelson Chou

Nelson Chou is a librarian/professor at Rutgers University; his research interests are the history of Chinese libraries and library science development, and computational linguistics of modern Chinese.


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